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Report finds multiple failings led to 2015 prison break

Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits Clinton Correctional facility last year after the prison break, seeing the manhole where David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s inspector general has found that numerous security and oversight problems at the state prison in Dannemora contributed to the prison break of two inmates last year.

The June 6, 2015, escape of inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility near Plattsburgh led to a massive three-week-long manhunt in which Matt was killed in an encounter with New York State Police and Sweat was shot and wounded and retaken into custody.

Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott’s report said the belongings of staff were supposed to be routinely searched but were not, allowing prison employee Joyce Mitchell to smuggle in some of the tools the inmates used in their escape. Mitchell herself was not adequately supervised, leading to her “grossly inappropriate relationships” with the inmates, the report said.

Guards also failed to regularly count inmates in their beds during the nighttime, contributing to the hours-long delay before the inmates’ absence was discovered. The report said simply doing a nightly bed count would have foiled the escape plot. Instead, the report said, the corrections officers falsified reports saying that they had done the counts.

Cell searches were infrequent and too cursory and hasty, the report found. The prison officials also almost never inspected the prison’s tunnels or catwalks, routes the inmates used to get away.

Leahy also calls into question the agency’s ability to oversee itself, saying its own internal investigations unit was compromised because too many of the inspectors are former prison guards who are reluctant to speak ill of former colleagues and supervisors.

The inspector general said she believes several employees “committed criminal acts,” and she’s referred the cases to prosecutors.

Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Spokesperson Thomas Mailey said that since the breakout the agency has “instituted a number of reforms to strengthen operations,” including installing new cameras and security gates, retraining staff, and disciplining responsible employees.

Mailey points out that the prison’s superintendent has been replaced, as well as “other senior administrative personnel.”

He says the agency will continue to work with the inspector general to “implement her recommendations to improve operations” at the prison and throughout the state’s entire prison system to “help ensure this incident is never repeated.”

A spokesman for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, also issued a statement:

“We thank the inspector general, her staff and Mr. Jacobson for their thorough and comprehensive review of this matter," Azzopardi said. "Safety is paramount, and we will work to ensure that DOCCS implements these recommendations expeditiously to increase the security of our correctional system.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.